BANGKOK – Thailand has introduced a new visa to make it easier for foreign executives, investors, entrepreneurs and technology experts to do business in the country’s focus industries.
The so-called Smart Visa, available from Feb. 1, applies to 10 industries, including next-generation automotives, automation and robotics, agricultural and biotechnology, and medical and wellness tourism.
The Thai Board of Investment expects about 1,000 people to apply for the visa each year.
Thailand depends on foreign investment for much of its economic growth, and is hoping an improved business climate will help attract more money and talent.
BOI Secretary-General Duangjai Asawachintachit stressed the importance of Thailand increasing “convenience for investors” if the country is to entice foreign businesses to set up shop.
The BOI said that applications for investment totaled about 641.9 billion baht ($20.2 billion) in 2017. For 2018, the board has set a goal of 720 billion baht, a 12% increase.
The new visa allows startup entrepreneurs to stay in the country for a year, while science and technology workers, investors and corporate executives can stay four years.
Individuals meeting certain requirements, such as minimum income levels, will be entitled to a waiver on work permits. Smart Visa holders will only have to report to the Immigration Department once a year instead of every 90 days under the existing visa.
According to the World Bank’s 2018 rankings for ease of doing business, Thailand moved up 20 spots to 26th. Among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the country ranked third after Singapore and Malaysia, which placed second and 24th, respectively.
The target for investment applications in the 10 focus industries is set at 400 billion baht, up 2% from a year ago.
The BOI plans to visit countries possessing needed technologies this year, including Japan, China and South Korea. A BOI official said Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha or a deputy prime minister will attend five of the 35 or so foreign presentations planned for the drive.
The official said the government expects investment will increase from the U.S., which Prayuth visited last year.
With incomes having plateaued, Thailand finds itself stuck in the middle-income trap, adding urgency to the government’s efforts.
The 10 focus industries were selected under the “Thailand 4.0” program — a raft of measures aimed at jump-starting the economy to push incomes higher. Five of the industries are to foster short- to medium-term growth with the other five targeting the future.
The government is helping these industries through tax incentives and other measures.
Thailand rose two places to 19th in the 2017 Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index by management consultancy A.T. Kearney. Singapore, which ranked 10th, was the only other ASEAN country among the top 25, indicating that the BOI’s efforts may be paying off.
But though Thailand is still attractive for investment, rising labor costs and a serious labor shortage are becoming problematic. ASEAN members Vietnam and Myanmar, with their cheaper labor and younger populations, are catching up — a fact that has Bangkok worried.
By Marimi Kishimoto